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Sempre un servo

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Gérard had always dreamed of beauty. Even as a child, always running errands for his father, he admired from afar the riches of the Coigny domain, the golden rooms, pretty clothes, and decadent food. Young as he was, he did not understand that all of that beauty was not for him and would never be, so he allowed himself to dream. He thought himself at home at the Coigny palace, even if he was always confined to the servant’s quarters, always looking and working, never living. The most dangerous dream, however, was the beautiful smiling face of Maddalena de Coigny, his Maddalena. She wasn’t really his, that was the dream you see. 


As insignificant a child as he was, he was allowed to play with her and it only made the treacherous hope in his heart grow. To laugh with her as they ran through fields fragrant with the freshness of spring, to feel her smile on him as the sunlight kissed her golden hair, to feel the small perfection of her hand in his as they clumsily tried to dance in the candlelight when everyone was asleep: that was the most dangerous beauty that kept him dreaming of more, that kept him content even as his father slowly killed himself at work. 


As Gérard grew up, he came to recognize the ugliness of the world he had idolized as a child. His hands grew coarse with callouses at the manual work he had to do and his soul ached with the pain brought from the poverty of those around him. He never starved, he was lucky that way, but whenever he had to go into the city he would see the misery in the streets and come back with hate in his heart. Hate for the golden, empty rooms which shone bright while infants cried from hunger in the dark of the streets of Paris, hate for the pretty clothes which cost a year’s rent from tenants who had to eat their own milk cows to survive the winter, hate for the decadent food which rotted the nobility’s teeth while the servants who cooked the meals settled for scraps. 


Throughout the years, even as he grew to hate the livery he had to wear each morning, those clothes that branded him as inferior to the lazy conceited aristocrats he waited on night and day, there was one beauty that could never be diminished in his eyes: Maddalena . Even as she became more and more inaccessible to him (after all, a noble young woman could not spend her time with the son of the butler), he still dreamed of her. She was like the sun to him, blinding him with her beauty, her smile filling him with warmth, and yet always impossible to reach. She was the last dream he still held unto, the only thing, apart from his father, that made him stay in a household that sickened him. 


One day, after weeks of growing unrest in the streets and the tenants, the Coigny’s decided to host a soirée. It was the most ridiculous occasion, the crème de la crème of the rotting flower of the nobility gathering to talk, dance and eat. There were fires and shouts in the streets as some frivolous music played in the salon and bored men and women pranced in their fine clothes and powdered wigs. 


That morning, Gérard had had to watch his aging father exhaust himself polishing the silver with his tired, shaking hands because he could not afford to retire and he had felt the last part of his patience snap. How dare they make him slave away like this! How dare they never lift a finger to do anything for themselves! How dare they look down on him as if they were better than him, as if the blood in their veins was somehow more worthy than his… 


There was a poet that night at the soirée, Andrea Chénier. Gérard had hated him, at first, for the way Maddalena’s eyes never left him, as if fascinated by the poet. But then, the man had recited a poem that rang with such truth that Gérard could not fault him. That poem had angered the guests, to the point where Chénier had left, but Gérard had understood him and the nobility’s reaction to the poem had lit a fire in him. When the cries outside the palace had become deafening, he had thrown his livery to the ground like he had always wanted to and left with his father to side with the uprising which would grow to become a Revolution. 


When he joined the ranks of the men and women who had lived the same life he had, who had suffered the same injustice, he found a new ideal: the Revolution. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité : those were the words he would live by, words that made him dream of a new beauty. As blindly as he had dreamt as a child, he threw himself in his new cause with a wild abandon that made him rise quickly through the ranks until he had the power of life or death over the ones who had once looked down on him. At first he convinced himself that the guillotine was just, and that the suffering of thousands had to be paid for by the blood of the nobility. But after a while his quill grew heavy and his hand would shake as he condemned his fellow human beings to die. It became hard to see the beauty of justice in the bloody blade of the guillotine and the lifeless bodies piled up in wooden carts to be buried in unmarked graves. It became hard to see the beauty in a Revolution that killed so quickly and mercilessly. 


At night though, when he wasn’t plagued by nightmares, he still dreamt of the same smile, the same golden smile, and the same laughing eyes that had brightened his childhood days. Maddalena . She felt almost ethereal to him now, as if part of another world, another time. She was the only beauty that he had left and she was only ever present in his mind, a flame of sunlight to keep him warm. 


He looked for her everywhere over the years, but she always evaded him, as ephemeral in life as in the dreams she inhabited.


However, on an afternoon not long after the start of what they called the Terror, she became very real to him again, real enough that he still had a scar, just below his 9th rib, to remind himself of his painful jealousy. She was there, mere paces away from him, but she wasn’t alone.To see her there in Andrea Chénier’s arms had been too much for him to bear after the vision of perfection he had built her up to be all this time. She had been his in the rare moments of peace of his childhood and those golden memories were now tainted by her love for another. He was hers but she was not his and it made the blood boil in his veins. And so he provoked the poet to a duel and lost.


She disappeared again then, but at least now he knew she had a lover. He recognized her weakness and he knew that he could make her come to him with only a letter addressed to the right person. He knew it was wrong of him, but he was helpless when it came to her, a slave to her beauty, unable to be free of her even after leaving everything of the life of servitude he had lived. And so he bent the principles of the Revolution to satisfy his lust, to see her before him as helpless as he had been all these years. 


When he saw her in his office, dressed simply and devoid of all the artifice she had grown up with, merely a woman pleading for her lover’s life, he felt the faint memory of that light in her which had always blinded him. Now he was the one in control and she would know how he felt about her, how long he had dreamt of her. He still remembered her wide, alarmed eyes when he had approached her, years worth of pent up love confessions tumbling from his lips. Drunk on power and finally being able to be honest, he had taken her in his arms, ignoring her protests as he had tried to kiss her. He had only had a faint taste of heaven before she pushed him off with a cry, disgust in her eyes. Then, silence for a moment as Maddalena thought before she said the words that would come to haunt him even now. “ Take me in payment for his life .” In that instant, in those resigned eyes, Gérard saw the ugliness in himself and he felt sick. 


That was love, he realized, that strength which had driven her to come to him and sacrifice herself for her lover, not the destructive sentiment which had pushed him to betray his ideals.


Helpless again in front of such goodness, he aided her and her poet at the risk of his life, revealing his own corruption to the Tribunal. It was useless of course, the Revolution no longer cared about whom it killed, resorting to anything to keep the fear in the hearts of the citizens and the power in the hands of the few. Andrea Chénier would die and Gérard tried to believe in God as he sent Maddalena to die with him. She would die for the love of her poet and he would have to live on without her light. 


And so, on a quiet July morning, Gérard’s last dream of beauty was silenced by the guillotine.